George Bush (c. 1790?-1863) was a key leader of the first group of American citizens to settle north of the Columbia River in what is now Washington. Bush was a successful farmer in Missouri, but as a free African American in a slave state, he faced increasing discrimination and decided to move west. In 1844, Bush and his good friend Michael T. Simmons (1814-1867), a white Irish American, led their families and three others over the Oregon Trail. When they found that racial exclusion laws had preceded them and barred Bush from settling south of the Columbia River, they settled on Puget Sound, becoming the first Americans to do so. Bush established a successful farm near present day Olympia on land that became known as Bush Prairie. He and his family were noted for their generosity to new arrivals and for their friendship with the Nisqually Indians who lived nearby. Bush continued modernizing and improving his farm until his death in 1863. Said by some sources to be named George Washington Bush in honor of the first president, he has no known family connection to the two later presidents who share with him the name George Bush.
George Bush was born in Pennsylvania in the late 1700s. Information about his birth and early years is sparse and conflicting. His birth date was probably around 1790, although some accounts place it more than 10 years earlier, which would have made Bush more than 60 when he and his family followed the Oregon Trail west. His exact name is also uncertain. The few census records listing him and news articles published during his lifetime refer to him as "George Bush." However, early Washington historian Edmond S. Meany (1862-1935), who knew people who had known Bush, gives his name as "George W. Bush" in publications dating at least from 1899, and other accounts published through the twentieth century do so as well. Since the early 1960s, most publications mentioning Bush, including eventually many state and other official websites, give his name as "George Washington Bush," with some stating he was so named in honor of the president in office when he was born.
Bush's father, Matthew Bush, of African descent, was said to be a sailor from the British West Indies. His mother was an Irish American servant. Both apparently worked for a wealthy Quaker family named Stevenson, and young George Bush was educated in the Quaker tradition. As a young man, Bush served in the U.S. Army and may have participated in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. He later worked as a voyageur and fur trapper, first for the St. Louis based Robideaux Company and then for the famed Hudson’s Bay Company, which dominated the fur trade throughout western Canada and in the Oregon Territory. During this time he traveled extensively in the Western plains and mountains, and may have reached the Puget Sound region.
Bush eventually settled in Clay County, Missouri, where he met Isabella (or Isabell) James (c. 1809-1866), a young German American woman. They were married on July 4, 1830. William Owen Bush (1832-1907), the first of their six sons, was born exactly one year later. Four more sons -- Joseph Talbot (1834-1904), Rial Bailey (1837-?), Henry Sanford (1841-1913), and Jackson January (1843-1888) -- were born before the family headed west in 1844.
West With Family and Friends
Bush farmed and raised cattle, and the family was relatively well off. However, the state of Missouri had laws that purported to forbid free African Americans from entering the state, and the climate of bigotry and discrimination was increasing in the years leading up to the Civil War. At the same time, in the late 1830s and early 1840s, reports from the first U.S. residents to cross the continent and settle in the fertile Oregon Territory were beginning to inspire others to follow the Oregon Trail west. Bush saw westward migration as a way to escape the increasing prejudice he and his sons faced in Missouri.
Four white families -- those of Michael and Elizabeth Simmons, James and Charlotte McAllister, David and Talitha Kindred, and Gabriel and Keziah Jones -- joined the Bushes on the journey that would make them the first U.S. citizens to settle on Puget Sound. The five families were all friends and neighbors in Missouri. Kentucky-born Michael Simmons was a longtime friend of George Bush who went on to play a prominent leadership role in the early history of Washington Territory. Simmons’s sister Charlotte was married to James McAllister and Simmons’s wife Elizabeth was David Kindred’s sister.
Simmons and Bush were the recognized leaders of what became known as the Simmons party. Bush was among the wealthier pioneers to follow the Oregon Trail. He was said to have supplied the Conestoga wagons and supplies that allowed some of the other families to make the trip. According to some accounts, a false floor in the Bush family wagon concealed a layer of silver dollars. The Simmons party joined a larger wagon train, which departed Missouri in May 1844. Bush’s frontier experience made him a valuable addition to the train, which he helped lead across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Change of Destination
When the Simmons party reached the Columbia River in the fall of 1844, they found that discriminatory laws had preceded them. The provisional government set up in Oregon Territory by settlers from the U.S. had enacted legislation, like that of Missouri, barring settlement by African Americans. Not wishing to separate from the Bush family, Simmons and the other members of the party gave up their plans to settle in Oregon’s Rogue River Valley.
The five families spent the winter of 1844-45 on the north bank of the Columbia River, not far from the Hudson's Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver in present-day Clark County. The men of the party found work that winter at the fort. By spring, they had decided to settle north of the Columbia in the Puget Sound region, which was then beyond the practical reach of the settlers’ new legislation. The 1818 Treaty of Joint Occupation placed the Oregon country under joint British and U.S. control. In practice, the provisional government’s authority extended only to the south side of the Columbia River, while the British Hudson’s Bay Company still dominated the territory north of the river.
The Hudson’s Bay Company officially attempted to dissuade Americans from settling north of the Columbia. However, Dr. John McLoughlin (1784-1857), who as the chief factor in charge of Fort Vancouver was the most powerful figure in the Pacific Northwest’s small non-Indian community, helped them just as he helped those settling south of the Columbia. Under McLoughlin’s direction, Fort Vancouver not only employed the men in cutting timber and making shingles but also provided the Simmons party with supplies at good prices and on credit.
Move to Puget Sound
In the summer of 1845, Simmons led an exploring party around Puget Sound, while Bush and the others remained on the Columbia, where Bush had charge of the families’ livestock. Simmons found a site for a settlement at the falls where the Deschutes River enters Budd Inlet in what is now Thurston County. In October 1845, the Bush, Simmons, McAllister, Kindred, and Jones families, accompanied by two single men, Samuel Crockett and Jesse Ferguson, set off from Fort Vancouver for Puget Sound.
They traveled down the Columbia to the Cowlitz, and up that river to Cowlitz Landing. From there they spent 15 days making a road through the forest to Budd Inlet, which they reached in early November. Simmons and his family settled there at the falls of the Deschutes, and Simmons laid out the community he called New Market, which later became Tumwater. The Bushes and others settled farther up the Deschutes River, a few miles south of New Market on a fertile open prairie that soon became known as Bush Prairie.
Help From Hudson’s Bay and the Nisquallies
Having arrived so late in the year, the new settlers hurried to construct crude log cabins before the winter set in. For food that first year they depended largely on the generosity of their neighbors -- the Hudson’s Bay Company outpost at Fort Nisqually farther north on Puget Sound in what is now Pierce County, and the Nisqually Indians whose lands extended widely on both sides of the Nisqually River (now the border between Thurston and Pierce counties).
McLoughlin had provided the party a generous letter of reference to Dr. William F. Tolmie, his counterpart at Fort Nisqually:
"They have all conducted themselves in a most neighborly, friendly manner, and I beg to recommend them to your kind assistance and friendly offices" (Snowden, Vol. 2, 430).
With this letter, the families were able to purchase wheat, peas, potatoes, and beef cattle at Fort Nisqually on credit. Interestingly, of the five family names, only Bush does not appear on the Fort’s credit list, apparently corroborating that they brought sufficient cash to pay for their supplies.
The Hudson’s Bay Company had good relations with the Puget Sound Indians, whom they treated as trading partners and allies. With Tolmie’s encouragement, the Simmons party followed that example. They were welcomed by the Nisqually Indians led by Chief Leschi, who brought them horse-loads of supplies. Local Indians taught the newcomers from the Midwest to take advantage of the unfamiliar seafood with which the region abounded. They soon learned to find oysters, dig for clams, and harvest salmon returning up the rivers, as well as to use many native plants.
All the members of the Bush family learned the Nisqually language. They became close to Leschi and other Nisquallies who frequently visited their farm. George and Isabella Bush’s youngest son, who was born at Bush Prairie in December 1847 (and died in 1923), was named Lewis Nesqually Bush. The Bushes helped to treat their Indian neighbors when epidemics carried by the newcomers swept the region.
Aiding New Arrivals
The weather was unusually harsh the first few years following the settlement, and the first harvests were small. But Bush was a skilled farmer and the farm began to thrive. By the winter of 1846-47 Bush and Simmons set up a grist mill on Simmons’s claim at the Deschutes falls. For the first time the settlers could grind their own flour instead of depending on Fort Nisqually. Simmons and others also set up a sawmill, and the growing community was able to gain some cash income by selling lumber.
Bush does not appear to have been heavily involved in the sawmill, concentrating instead on improving and expanding his farm. In addition to his grain and vegetable crops, he established acres of fruit trees, grown from seeds he had carried over the Oregon Trail. As more settlers began to pour into the Puget Sound region -- more than 1,000 by 1850 and another 12,000 in the next decade -- Bush became famous for bestowing on them the same generosity that he and his party had encountered on their arrival.
The Bush farm was located just off the "highway" running south from Tumwater to Cowlitz Landing and Vancouver, so most new emigrants, some half-starved from the journey, passed it on their way to Puget Sound. The newcomers were dependent on established settlers for food and seeds to start their own farms, and the Bush family was foremost in offering assistance. That help was especially important in 1852, when the large number of emigrants exhausted most of the region’s grain harvest, and the Bush farm was one of the few with supplies available. Ezra Meeker (1830-1928), who was among the 1852 arrivals and went on to become a prominent pioneer leader and author of numerous reminiscences, recalled that Bush gave out nearly all his crop that year:
"'Pay me in kind next year,' he would say to those in need, and to those who had money, he would say 'Don’t take too much -- just enough to do you'" (Meeker, 4).
Discrimination and Exception
Ironically, the discriminatory laws the Bushes were trying to avoid had followed them and jeopardized the family’s claim to the land they had painstakingly cultivated and from which they fed the waves of newly arriving white emigrants. The 1845 American settlement north of the Columbia may have been one of the catalysts for the 1846 Treaty of Oregon, which resolved the U.S.-British boundary dispute by giving the territory south of the 49th parallel to the U.S., bringing what is now Washington under the Oregon Territory laws that denied rights to African Americans. As a result, although the long expected Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 authorized married settlers to claim 640 acres per couple, it was argued that Bush could not claim the land his family had settled.
When Washington Territory was separated from Oregon in 1853, many of the new legislators were friends and neighbors of the Bush family and beneficiaries of their generosity. While this experience did not necessarily make them less prejudiced, it did inspire them to make an exception for George Bush and his sons. The first territorial legislature in 1854 voted unanimously for a resolution urging Congress to pass a special act confirming George and Isabella Bush’s title to the land they had claimed and farmed. Congress did so in 1855, and the Bush Prairie farm remained in the hands of the Bush family.
Despite the support for Bush’s claim, many early leaders of Washington Territory including Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), the first governor, were anti-abolitionist Democrats who sought to ban nonwhites from the territory. Michael Simmons, otherwise one of Stevens’s strongest early supporters, led the opposition and Washington did not adopt racial exclusionary laws.
Indian Wars and Final Years
The increasing influx of settlers, followed by Governor Stevens’s efforts in 1854 and 1855 to force Indians in the Territory to sign treaties ceding most of their lands and confining them to reservations, generated increasing hostility between settlers and Indians, culminating in the "Indian Wars" of 1855 and 1856. According to later statements by George Bush’s sons, the Bushes and most of the early settlers at Tumwater and Bush Prairie sympathized with Leschi and the Nisquallies, not Stevens and his troops. Sanford and Lewis Bush explained that Leschi went to war after being deceived about the boundaries provided for the Nisqually Reservation in the Treaty of Medicine Creek. Owen Bush told Ezra Meeker "Leschi was as good a friend as we ever had" (Thomas, 61). Owen said Stevens’s bad management caused the war and that he refused to participate in it. Before the fighting started, Leschi contacted the Bushes and assured them that settlers who remained west of the Deschutes River would not be harmed.
In the final years of his life Bush continued to expand his farm and led the way in modernizing Puget Sound agriculture. At first, farming had been conducted almost entirely by hand using the few simple tools carried overland in the wagons. As more ships began regular visits to the Sound in the 1850s, larger farm machinery became available. In 1856, Bush introduced the first mower and reaper on the Sound. The next year he brought in a thresher and separator. By the end of the decade Bush and his sons were operating a model farm of 880 acres that was one of the leading operations in the Territory.
Succession and Legacy
George Bush died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 5, 1863. Isabella Bush died on September 12, 1866. Following George’s death, their eldest son William Owen Bush returned from Grand Mound, where he had a farm, to take over the Bush Prairie homestead, which he operated until his death in 1907. His brothers (of whom only Jackson married) also lived and worked the rest of their lives on the family land. Several of the brothers played active roles in Thurston county civic and political affairs. Owen Bush was an influential member of the first state legislature in 1889-90. Like his father an expert farmer, he became interested in competing in world's fairs and expositions, winning first-place awards at several for produce from the Bush Prairie farm.
Owen Bush’s descendants owned at least some of the original homestead as late as the 1960s. Various implements and artifacts from the Bush farm are now held in the collection of the Washington State Capitol Museum in Olympia. Also in that collection is the five-painting series George Washington Bush, created in 1973 by acclaimed artist Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), a Washington state resident since 1971. Of necessity his likenesses of Bush are speculative -- no known image of Bush made in his lifetime exists. The widely circulated portrait sketch that accompanies this article is also a speculative rendering, created just four years before Lawrence's paintings by Los Angeles Times illustrator Sam Patrick. Nonetheless, Lawrence's paintings, based like much of his work on extensive research in African American history, vividly depict George Bush's journey by wagon train across the continent from Missouri to Bush Prairie.
On that journey, Bush and his family had carried root stock from Missouri to plant at their new home. One tree he planted at Bush Prairie in 1845, a butternut or white walnut (Juglans cinerea) survived there for nearly two centuries, until May 2021. Several offspring of that original butternut tree have been planted in public places around Western Washington. In 2010 a sapling was transplanted from Bush Prairie to the state capitol campus in Olympia and named the Bush Butternut Tree. In November 2021 a monument honoring Bush and his family was dedicated on the capitol campus near the Bush Butternut. A replica of the monument was dedicated on the Washington State University Tri-Cities campus in Richland in February 2022.
Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, vidoes, and curriculum.